Thursday, January 5, 2012


Every Chinese New Year, some 130 million Chinese leave the large cities they work in for their ancestral villages and towns to celebrate with the families they’ve left behind. These migrant workers have been leaving their dead-end villages for the utterly transformed modern Chinese cities the past decade, and the stress they place on the country’s rail system during their pilgrimages back home is the stuff of madness – as this excellent documentary shows. It’s a fascinating picture of what the rapid industrialization of China has done to family life, living arrangements and the process of growing into adulthood.

“LAST TRAIN HOME” has indelible & intense images that will not leave your head for some time. There are numerous aerial scenes taken from above the outside of railway stations, with thousands of people shoving, pushing and desperately waiting for a spot on a crowded train that they may not get. If human beings have ever looked and been made to behave like cattle, it’s here. Yet the film goes far deeper than that, focusing its lens on one family as a microcosm for the whole. The young parents both, together, left their tiny rural village when their daughter was a baby for Guangzhou, where there was machine-shop work creating clothes that you and I may be wearing at this very moment. 15 years later, they’re still there – and only return once a year at Chinese New Year, where they visit their rebellious teenage daughter and preteen son, both being raised by Grandma.

Their interactions say a ton about the new China. On their visits the parents continually harp on their kids – who barely know these parents, let alone respect them – about the importance of incessant studying and of being at the top of their class. The kids, meanwhile, now knowledgeable about and envious of the modern, culturally-rich world of the big cities, can’t wait to drop out and escape the villages and lead a life of fun that was never an option for their parents or grandparents. This produces much tension, which plays out on camera in ways that are obviously not forced nor staged. You’ll see what I mean when you see it.

Europe and North America and most of the rest of the world are very much as they were twenty years ago, with the addition of a little digital this-and-that everywhere. China, meanwhile, is almost another planet compared to where it was merely two decades ago. This film’s an excellent eye-opener about that reality, both visually and dramatically, and should be required viewing for anyone wanting to do any armchair pontificating about China and the effect of its rapid transformation on its citizens.